San Franciscans waiting for the return of Muni Metro are going to be waiting a while longer.
Some currently dormant rail routes are likely to come back online early next year, followed by a gradual, line-by-line return to operation for the rest of the system to make sure everything’s working properly, Julie Kirschbaum, director of transit for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, told the Board of Directors Tuesday.
But it will take between five and eight years to fully address the vulnerabilities of Muni Metro, and more shutdowns will likely be needed in the future to complete critical work, she said.
Muni Metro has been effectively shut down since March — save for a severely botched attempt at a restart in August — and the transit agency has said it’s attempting to make that down time productive by addressing long standing infrastructure challenges for San Francisco’s subway, including track replacements, upgrades to communications and emergency systems and quarterly maintenance.
That undertaking has proven to be even more daunting than expected.
“That’s not intended to start with any excuses, but to really give a sense that there are no easy fixes in the subway,” Kirschbaum said of the intricacy of the subway system. “We really need to understand and get our arms around the complexity of the system and, from there, have a systematic approach to how we’re going to address vulnerabilities.”
When rail first went offline in March due to service reductions related to COVID-19, SFMTA mobilized to create a widely-publicized re-launch plan for August that was to include reconfigured routes and longer trains to reduce vehicle crowding, mitigate back-ups within the tunnel and keep lines moving quickly.
However, within the first 72 hours, problems with overhead wire splices led to hours-long delays in service and an employee in the Transportation Management Center tested positive for COVID-19.
SFMTA subsequently made the call to close the entire system down again after just three days.
The failure laid bare the scale of Muni Metro’s vulnerabilities, and prompted SFMTA to reconsider its incremental, project-based approach to maintenance and infrastructure investment in favor of a more comprehensive one.
Those weaknesses include needed repairs to overhead lines, upgrades to communications, emergency systems and subway lighting and replacement of hardware, especially along high-use segments, and ballasts at key junctions like the Eureka Curve.
Most of these priorities must be addressed before the rail system can reopen.
“I think that we’re finding that approaching the subway as a series of incremental investments is doing us a disservice because it’s not approaching it as a comprehensive program, and I think that’s really what we need here,” Kirschbaum said.
This near-term work is being overseen by a multidisciplinary task force that’s already been meeting for weeks to “get as much work lined up as possible” for the subway, Kirschbaum said.
Top of that list is the replacement of the Eureka Curve ballast, essentially the stones beneath the track that create the trackbed, support the rail and help with drainage and stability.
It’s a must-have before Muni Metro can emerge from the shutdown. It also has a longer lead time, so when various lines can return largely hinges on the status of that work order.
Kirschbaum told the board the project has been expedited via emergency declaration, and the contract has already been awarded to the same contractor as the one overseeing the L Taraval Improvement Project, allowing for quicker onboarding.
However, until there’s a signed task order, she said, to give a specific timeline on when the train could reopen would be speculative.
Kirscbaum did say the T line to the Embarcadero or the N Judah could possibly “start up sooner” than the rest of the system next year.
The aforementioned additional shutdowns will be necessary to complete projects that take more time, often due to lags in custom-making or obtaining harder-to-get parts. Examples include crossover replacement, upgrades to ventilation, electrical and power systems and train control improvements.
“I wish more than anything we could get that work done now while the subway is closed,” Kirschbaum said, pointing to the crossover replacement’s 18-month lag time as an example of why these projects can’t be done so quickly.